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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

11 August 2023

Extreme weather events were prophesied by Shakespeare, Malcolm Guite finds

SO, “IDLE AUGUST” has come at last, though the weather feels more like October, with all this unseasonal wind, cold mornings, cool evenings, and, of course, the rain. We watched it falling, gathering, puddling, spilling remorselessly from the covers at Old Trafford, pausing and then spoiling an otherwise glorious Test Match.

But, if those who are holidaying at home stare balefully out at the rains that ruin walks and expeditions with the children, they can scarcely be envious of those who have gone abroad, as they, too, abandon holiday plans and come home early, fleeing not from flood, but from fire, and the frightening heat that is baking Southern Europe.

It’s hard not to think of Titania’s speech, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as a kind of prophecy:

Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents:
The ox hath therefore stretch’d his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain’d a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field. . .

Indeed, the last lines of that speech could almost be a summary of the effects of climate change: “. . . the spring, the summer, The childing autumn, angry winter, change, Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world, By their increase, now knows not which is which. . .”

Shakespeare did not have the scientific account that we have of how human activity has led to these changes, and, indeed, he lived before the industrial revolution that drove those changes; and yet he intuited a link between our choices and the welfare of the world around us, as Titania, Faerie though she be, intimates in the lines that immediately follow, lines that seem to reach out beyond the arena of Shakespeare’s play: “And this same progeny of evils comes, From our debate, from our dissension; We are their parents and original.”

The Bible also suggests to us an intimate link between human choice and the welfare of the world around us, most notably in the story of the Fall, with its suggestion that the ground is cursed as a consequence of our sin. Indeed, when Milton, in Book IX of Paradise Lost, finally approaches the subject of his poem, the moment when paradise is lost, his first concern is not for mankind, but for the earth herself, for nature and all that we will visit upon her:

So saying, her rash hand in evil hour
Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she ate:
Earth felt the wound; and nature from her seat
Sighing through all her works gave signs of woe,
That all was lost.

Fortunately, St Paul, returning to that same fundamental insight of the links between humanity and nature, realises that, if the fall of humanity damaged nature, then there is hope for the natural world in the redemption of humanity, hope for a restoration of all that has been lost: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

That New Testament hope was never more needed than now.

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